Climate Central Releases Greatest Hits of Biomass Myths

Climate Central describes itself as a “hybrid science and media non-profit organization,” whose “journalists” aim to provide “factual information” on climate and policy. But merely claiming the mantle of objective journalism doesn’t make Climate Central’s output objective, or even journalism. And its close ties to ideologically motivated environmentalist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council should give pause to publications considering reprinting their work, and readers looking for the facts.

Climate Central’s new, multi-part “report” on forest biomass is a case in point. Authored by activist John Upton, it is presented as the product of a months-long investigation. But the core of its biomass criticism relies on the same misleading talking points and flawed studies touted by other ideologically motivated activists for years.

Some of the error on display we’ve covered before: the flawed understanding of the economics of biomass, the insinuation that trees (trees!) somehow shouldn’t count as renewable energy sources, and the propagation of what we call the “100 Year Fallacy.” This is the utterly silly idea that responsible foresters clear cut entire forests and then walk away. In fact, the computer model Upton relies on to make this faulty claim assumes exactly that—that forests are being “clear cut every few decades” to produce energy. Of course modern forestry, the product of over a century of innovation and experience, doesn’t work that way at all.

The reality is that, far from taking “decades” to have an effect, many forest biomass studies show a net carbon benefit immediately, or in as little as a few years. The doom-saying reports frequently cited by activists, “represent only a small fraction of the work that has been, and is still being, performed to understand the GHG impacts of using biomass for energy” according to 2014 analysis of available research in the peer-reviewed Journal of Forestry

The report also leans heavily on the shortsighted and scientifically wrongheaded idea that somehow biomass’s carbon impact is “worse” than coal. This is simply false. As a coalition of leading forest scientists put it, the evidence shows that“forest biomass energy yields significant net decreases in overall carbon accumulation in the atmosphere over time compared to fossil fuels,” including coal. 

So how does Climate Central and its activist sources get away with saying otherwise? They look only at carbon released at the moment of use—not at full impacts or the role of the natural carbon cycle. Here, as in the 100 Year Fallacy, biomass critics use skewed and scientifically off-base time scales to get the results they want. This failure to look at the big picture of growth, use, and regrowth “implies that wood energy emissions are more damaging than fossil fuel-derived CO2 and other GHGs, which has no scientific basis.” (Journal of Forestry)

Sometimes when activists are backed into a corner on this, they’ll say things like “we can’t afford to wait,” or “we’re at the brink,” and indeed, Upton and Climate Central use that kind of language several times in the report. 

But there’s no scientific basis to that view, either. Indeed, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded “there is no evidence for global-scale tipping points in any of the most comprehensive models evaluated” (IPCC 2013, p. 129). 

What matters according to the best climate science are cumulative carbon emissions over long periods of time, and this is where biomass presents its clear advantages. In fact, one of the studies relied upon by the UN concludes that stopping warming is about limiting total carbon emissions and is “remarkably insensitive” to whether that reduction happens immediately or over time.  As the IPCC concludes, “no individual year's emissions are critical….” (Allen et al. 2009, p. 1163) (Bruckner et al. 2014, p. 67–68)

Reasonable people can disagree about the pros and cons of energy production and energy policy, but those debates should be rooted in rigor and scientific fact, not nonsensical models, cherry-picked statistics, and outright distortions. Unfortunately Climate Central’s “hybrid” of science and journalism falls woefully short on both fronts. In truth, it appears to be more of a hybrid between science obfuscation and activism—and readers, and editors, should beware. 

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